'We owe this to ourselves': Teachers learn how to talk residential schools at Winnipeg workshop

Around 30 Winnipeg educators became students on Saturday at a workshop designed to build skills around teaching the history and legacy of residential schools in Canada.

"The importance of bringing this into the classroom is that we owe this to our students. We owe this to ourselves," said Leora Schaefer, a facilitator and Toronto director of Facing History and Ourselves, the organization that developed the workshop.

"Nobody wants to feel that they're not learning the whole truth."

The workshop, called Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools, aims to show teachers strategies to bring the history of residential schools into the classroom and engage students with calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Participants also heard a first-hand account from Manitoba residential school survivor Theodore Fontaine, who worked with the organization in developing the workshop and accompanying textbook.

'Messiness' is OK

Schaefer said the workshop and book are all about sharing an approach to teaching that helps students understand history isn't "inevitable," and that their choices matter.

"And so what is at the heart of this is that out of learning about the Indian residential schools, learning the history in a rigorous way, we want students to feel motivated to say, 'Well, what am I going to do now?'" she said.

Talking about this part of Canada's history can be tough for students — and teachers, she said.

"I think students really grapple … with the [question] 'How is this possible? How could this possibly have happened? How could that possibly have happened anywhere, but, you know, in our country? And that's the hardest thing," she said.

In turn, educators need to be comfortable with that question and the overall "messiness" of the history, she added.

"You need to really sort of sit with the fact that there isn't a simple answer to a question like that, and that it's OK for students to grapple with what that means, and what does that mean to how they connect to Canada and how do they think about Canada," Schaefer said.

If you're struggling with how to talk to your kids about residential schools, Schaefer said the key is to know your audience and what they're ready for. Start with material you think they can digest, and only bring in a new element if you know you'll be comfortable answering any questions they may have honestly.

The Stolen Lives book is available for purchase or free download online.